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Born at Versailles, 1741; died 16 July, 1828; the most distinguished sculptor of France during the latter half of the eighteenth century. He was trained under Slodtz and Pigalle and won the coveted Prix de Rome before he was twenty. In Italy he found a second Renaissance, due to the rediscovery of antiques and to the influence of Winckelmann. One of Houdon's first efforts, a work he never surpassed, was the heroic statue of St. Bruno for the church of Sta Maria degli Angeli. Its austere simplicity and strength drew from Clement XIV the famous words, "He would even speak, did not the Rule of his Order compel silence". On his return to Paris, Houdon sent his "Morpheus" to the Salon of 1771 and, owing to it, was made an associate of the Academy, becoming a full member in 1775. He also began that striking series of busts that brought the entire age before his modelling stool-Prince Gallitzin, Prince Henry of Prussia, the Dukes of Saxe-Gotha, Catherine II of Russia, the actress Sophie Arnould as Iphigenia, and that wonderful terra-cotta of Gluck, the composer, in the Royal Museum, Berlin. Appointed teacher at the Academy, Houdon presented to it, for the use of the students, his well-known "Ecorché", the human figure stripped of its skin to show the muscles and tendons uncovered; this is still used in most art schools. Diderot, D'Alembert, Gerbier, Turgot, Buffon, Palissot, Mirabeau, Barnave sat in turn for their portraits. Hearing of the death of Rousseau (1778), the sculptor hastened to Ermenonville to take a mask of the face; from this he modelled the remarkable head in the Louvre. In 1780 he made the portrait of Lafayette which is now in the State House, Richmond, Virginia, and in 1781 the draped statue of Voltaire at the Théâtre Français, with its antique air and curiously modern visage. The Maréchal de Tourville is of about the same period. The noted bronze "Diana" of the Louvre dates from 1783; the marble original, "twin sister of the Apollo Belvedere", was refused at the Salon on account of its scanty raiment (Hermitage, St. Petersburg). On 22 July, 1785, Houdon sailed for America with Franklin, whose bust he had previously made. He was received at Philadelphia and spent two weeks at Mount Vernon making studies of Washington, which he took back at once to Paris, and from which he produced the bust now in the collection of Mr. Hamilton Fish, New York, and the statue for the State House, Richmond, Virginia. It was proposed to put Washington in classic garb, but he chose to be in uniform. The same year, 1785, Houdon modelled the "Frileuse" (Musée of Montpellier), a female figure shivering with cold, as a companion piece for his "Summer". Among his most charming works are the Boignart children (Louvre) and his daughter Sabine in adolescence-delicate heads, instinct with life, and so fresh they might have emerged yesterday from the clay. In the private park at Bagatelle is an admirable "Baigneuse" in stone, set in a grotto, one foot touching the water. The bust of "Minerva", in the hall of the Institut de France, is also Houdon's. The "Apollo", 1790, is a companion to the "Diana" replica of that year. The Revolution brought an end to all work and commissions. To pass the time, Houdon was retouching an old "St. Scholastica"; this caused him to be denounced to the Convention, and he only saved his life by changing the saint into a figure of "Philosophy". In the early days he had made portraits of Du Barry, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, the Princesses Adelaide and Elisabeth, and the Court, not to mention the Encyclopedists and the noted men of the Revolution. He lived to add Napoleon and the Empress Josephine to the collection. In the end his mind clouded, and he slept away the last measure of his life. Possessed of great simplicity and openness of mind, and of a happy spirit, Houdon had been much sought after for the charm of his conversation, and his recollections of illustrious personages. In technic he is direct and simple; his paramount qualities are lifelikeness and spontaneity.
Dilke, Franch Architects and Sculptors of the Eighteenth Century (London, 1900); Shedd, Famous Sculptors and Sculptures (Boston, 1881); Lubke, History of Sculpture, tr. Bunnett (London, 1872).
M. L. Handley.